The Book of Rules
Not mine; CBS and FOX abandoned them, and we’ve given them a voice and a home. That’s about as much of an apology as they’re going to get. Wish I could add an appropriate sound bite.
Murdoch finds his boys; again. Some cussing; sexual innuendo.
03-The Book of Rules - Murdoch
I suppose I should feel guilty. After all, I have allowed my sons to believe that my business in Stockton would take more than a week to accomplish; when, in reality the only ranch business I conducted had simply been a matter of signing the final draft of completed contract. One night at the hotel in Stockton, and then this side trip to Sacramento; to meet Jess Simmons and Ethan Farley for one of our rare sabbaticals away from the tedium of ranch life and being alone.
Like me, Jess and Ethan are widowers. Jess’ wife, Elizabeth, has been gone five years now, and Ethan’s wife, Juliana…
Juliana died two years ago after giving birth at age forty-five: a surprise pregnancy with a tragic ending. The child had died, as well. It’s been a hard road for Ethan; he is my age -- only fifty-two -- and it is no secret he blames himself for what happened.
“Should have found myself a whore back then, Murdoch; given Juliana the peace she needed instead of…”
Ethan’s words fade off into nothingness and he is staring into his glass; his cheeks coloring as much from the whiskey as the shame. His grief -- his guilt -- is overwhelming, and it’s threatening contagion. I find my self thinking of Catherine. Had Harlan Garrett been right all those years ago when he accused me of destroying his daughter; his fragile child I condemned to certain death with a hard life on the frontier, and a pregnancy that left her weak and dying in the loneliness that was Carterville? I shake the thought away. Catherine was with me because she loved me; I sent her away for the same reason, to protect her, while I defended our land.
“God.” Jess Simmons is speaking now. He’s trimming the hand-rolled Cuban cigar, biting a small bit from the nub and placing it in his mouth. He takes his time lighting the smoke, remaining silent until he finally has it going. “You can’t argue with God, Ethan, anymore than you can argue with death. There comes a time when you just have to move on and take care of what has been left behind.” He is silent for a moment, studying the amber tip of his cheroot. “You have Lily and Carl to think about, Ethan; just like Murdoch and I have our sons.”
I smile at that. Ethan’s children -- Lily and Carl -- are both married now, well on their way to being settled and producing grandchildren. Jess’ boys and my boys…
Reese -- Jess’ elder son -- and Scott, my eldest are fine young men. But the younger boys; Jess’ twins, Tim and Ned, and my younger son, Johnny, are an entirely different matter. The three youngsters, still in their late teens, have a gift for finding trouble. They liken themselves to the Three Musketeers, but in reality they are more like the playful little people from Scottish folklore; never still and constantly in pursuit of some mischief, and too often able to find it.
Ethan excuses himself, and Jess and I watch as he leaves for the front room and the bar. The scotch he has been drinking has eased his grief and his guilt; enough that he will again be seeking out the companionship of a woman.
“Murdoch? Something on your mind?”
I look across to Jess, and realize from his grin he must know I’ve been thinking of our boys. I return the smile and salute him with my glass. He and I have already enjoyed the pleasures found in the upstairs bedrooms. “Just enjoying the quiet, Jess,” I reply. Then, using one of Scott’s favorite phrases; “the ambiance.”
Smiling, I gesture at the room with a grand sweep of my arm; surveying the sedate elegance that surrounds us. The dining room here at La Maison (The Mansion) is the epitome of genteel civility. At the rear of the building, behind solid oak doors, the private room is filled with all the accoutrements of refined living. Brocaded drapes; a soft golden material with fleur-de-lis designs that shimmer beneath the light from the cut-glass chandeliers, dominate the floor to ceiling windows, as well as the hidden rear door. The floors are polished oak, honey-colored; foot wide planks twelve feet in length complimenting the matching wainscoting that trims the lower third of the walls. Pale blue wall paper extends to the ceiling; gold framed diamond dust mirrors catching the light; giving the room the feel of a summer day no matter the time of the year.
“Do you feel guilty about this?” Jess’ eyes are twinkling when he asks the question. He knocks ash from his cigar into the cut glass ashtray at his elbow. “About hiding our mischief from our sons?”
I think about it, briefly, and avoid answering the question. “I’m quite sure, Jess, our boys have managed to hide more than their share of foolishness from us.” Trying to conceal the smile, I take another sip of Talisker’s. “What is it about the very young that makes them think just because we have a few grey hairs, we know nothing of life; of women?”
Good-naturedly, Jess laughs out loud. “A ‘few grey hairs’, Murdoch?” he points at me with his glass. His mood changes and he becomes serious. “Reese and I have had some limited discussions about women; as I’m sure you and Scott have talked. But the twins,” he sighed, shaking his head. “I know they’ve snuck off to the Silver Dollar a time or two,” he looks across at me, “and not with any encouragement from Johnny, either! The first time was when they were sixteen; long before Johnny was even home.”
Jess Simmons has been my friend a long time. Like Sam Jenkins, he came west with John Frémont; when California was called the Bear Republic. He knows my history well; just as he knows the majority of people in Green River and Morro Coyo.
He is also aware of Johnny’s past; his reputation as Johnny Madrid. But, unlike the others, he is not so quick to blame Johnny for corrupting his sons. I appreciate his fairness. “Johnny manages to turn an impressive shade of red whenever the subject of women comes up and I’m within hearing,” I observe. It’s true. When it comes to discussing his romantic escapades, my younger son -- who is quite verbose when talking about the same subject with his brother -- shuts up like a fresh-water clam. “Calls me ‘old man’ and takes off at a run for the nearest doorway!”
Jess nods, a good sign the twins have reacted the same way. “Well, Murdoch, we may be old, but we certainly aren’t dead!”
I laugh. I certainly wasn’t dead when I was upstairs with my companion; and if the noise from the room next door was any indication of Jess’ state of health, neither was he!
A sound at the door to the main room rouses both Jess and I from our musings, and we look up as Ethan comes back into the dining room. I watch as he tentatively approaches the table.
“Ah, Murdoch,” he begins. He licks his lips.
He turns his head slightly, staring back at the door for a moment. “Johnny’s here,” he announces, a silly grin lighting his eyes. The next words tumble from his mouth. “He’s here, and word is he’s been upstairs, and he went up there with Justice Duvalier…”
I’m already on my feet. Jess gets up out of his seat, uncomfortably close to my right shoulder. “Johnny and Scott are at Lancer!” I huff.
Ethan shakes his head. “I don’t know about Scott, but unless Johnny’s got a twin, he’s standing...” his brow furrows “…leaning against the bar.”
Jess touches my shoulder. “Christ, Murdoch, you don’t suppose…”
I turn to look at him, and find my old friend is grinning like a jackass. Pulling myself fully erect, I head for the door.
I can’t believe what I’m seeing as I cross the room. It is my son, my youngest son; looking very much a member of the landed Spanish gentry, a true caballero; dressed in his Sunday best. He would, however, look more the part if his legs didn’t appear to be made of rubber, he wasn’t sprawled across the bar, and he didn’t appear to be sleeping. I close in, until I am right behind him, hesitant to reach out to him for fear I’ll shake him senseless.
“I don’t suppose, young man, you’d care to tell me just what the Hell you are doing here!”
I’m having a hard time keeping my temper, as well as my voice, under control. My nineteen year old son -- who is supposed to be at home tending to his assigned chores -- is standing at the bar in a bordello he can ill afford, a row of down-turned shot glasses lined up before him; as if he’s been keeping score.
He rouses slightly and laughs, softly, but doesn’t turn around; just stands with his face buried in his arms, his head rocking back and forth. His shoulders are shaking, the muscles in his neck moving as he speaks, and I lean forward in an effort to hear what he’s saying.
“Real funny, Scott! Fuck off!”
Lifting a hand, he waves at my reflection in the mirror without raising his head, and I realize he has not opened his eyes. Grabbing him by the scruff of the neck, I give in to the temptation to shake him. He winces and lifts his head slightly, and I see one eye opening, then the other. The blinking begins; those long lashes fluttering like black moths seeking the light, and I see the surprise as his eyes widen and he struggles to turn around. He whispers something; Oh, Fuck! And then, “Hey…y…y…y, Murdoch…”
“I asked you a question, young man! Just what the Hell are you doing here?”
I see the quick pulling up at the corner of his mouth. “Getting’ laid, Old Man,” he answers, his blue eyes dancing, and he’s making no attempt to hide the smile. His right eyebrow arches, and just as quickly drops as his eyes narrow. “Guess the next question is,” the words come slowly, in that soft drawl he uses when he’s charming Maria and Teresa, “just what the Hell are you doin’ here?” He thumps a rigid forefinger against my chest, stopping short just as he’s about to deliver the third poke. Realizing he’s crossed the line, he backs off.
“The day I explain to you my comings and goings, John…”
He snickers, the tequila he has consumed priming his bravado. “Yeah, Pa. Let’s discuss your comings…” His head is bobbing up and down.
The boy is in great form. Hands on my hips, I glare down at the top of his head. He’s looking down now, trying hard to convince anyone who’s watching he’s sober; his elbows on the bar as he leans back. Gingerly, he lifts his right foot, trying to hook the heel of his boot on the foot rail; and fails. He laughs.
“Where,” I try very hard not to raise my voice, “is your brother?”
Johnny’s eyes open wide, and I can tell he’s trying to focus. It’s not working. It doesn’t help that his hair is disheveled, falling across his forehead, long enough that it hides his eyes. I don’t care how much he argues with me; Maria’s giving him a haircut if I have to tie him to the chair. The eyes, however, are dancing. “John.”
“Not here,” he replies, pointing at the floor directly to the right of his boot.
“I can see that, John.” I feel the familiar flush crawling up the back of my neck; that special fire that Johnny starts and knows too well how to fan.
“Well,” he drawls, “if he ain’t here,” he points again to the floor, “he must be somewhere else.” He cocks his head a bit, his expression suddenly serious; his eyes not. “Think I might a lost him, Pa.”
I feel my jaws tightening. “Then I suggest, John, you find him. Now!” I have him trapped between my arms now, my hands locked against the edge of the bar.
He winces; in reaction to my tone as well as the words. It’s obvious he has the beginnings of a very bad headache. “Jeez, Murdoch, don’t holler,” he whispers.
“Scott,” I demand again. “Where…is…Scott?”
I turn to face the voice and look into the countenance of my elder son. He’s smiling. His face is slightly flushed; his right cheek a bit more red than his left. Reaching out, I touch the spot of crimson, and find I can rub it away. Lip rouge. When I take my hand away, it is immediately replaced by Scott’s, and his smile grows.
“I believe, Sir, I heard Johnny ask you a question.” The blue-grey eyes mirror his brother’s; they are filled with humor. “What are you doing here?”
Behind me, I hear Jess Simmons’ guffaw. Ignoring the man, I lock my eyes on Scott’s face. “Having dinner,” I answer truthfully. “I’ll have you know this establishment serves some of the finest sea food west of the Mississippi.”
Scott laughs. “Oysters?”
Johnny’s voice now, annoyed. “They have food here!?” I feel him slip beneath my arms as he slides to the floor. Reaching down, Scott and I bump heads as we pull Johnny to his feet. A third man has reached out to help us.
“Clay Porter, sir,” he announces, extending his hand. “I’m afraid I’m responsible for…”
I take his hand. Porter is standing next to Scott. He’s a few years older than my son; well built with strong hands. It’s obvious from his stance -- the military cut to his bearing -- that his tie to Scott is more than mere acquaintanceship. “My sons are responsible for their own actions, Mr. Porter, and will bear the consequences accordingly.” I turn to look at Johnny, who is strangely quiet, and looking very much like a little boy. A very sick little boy. “At least one of them is responsible for their actions.” This time my gaze drifts to Scott.
Johnny is rubbing his belly. “Food, Scott.” His tone is accusatory. “You didn’t tell me one thing about any fuckin’ food!” He shakes a finger at his elder sibling. “You know how hungry I am, Scott? I ain’t had nothin’ since lunch!!”
Scott dismisses him with a wave. “Food was the last thing on your mind when we got here, Johnny.” Then, relentlessly, he turns back to me. “Dinner, sir? You came here…” he gestures with his arm, “…for dinner?”
If my eldest son thinks I’m about to explain myself or my dinner arrangements to him, he is sadly mistaken. “How did you get here?”
Again, Porter speaks. “I arranged a private car for them, and a hack.” He smiles. “I work for the S.P,” he explains.
I look at Scott. “And you are here because?”
Scott pulls himself erect, as if he’s about to deliver a report. “Actually, sir, it was at your suggestion.” He leans forward slightly, whispering in my ear. “That talk you said I should have with Johnny. About being careful.”
I can’t believe what I’m hearing. And then it occurs to me. It hasn’t been that long since Scott and I had our little talk about Johnny and his lack of restraint. “And you’re telling me that within days you made arrangements to come here to teach your brother about ‘being careful’?”
He has the good grace to blush. “Not exactly, sir. But everything seemed to fall into place.”
A snicker now, from beside me. Johnny.
“Boy, did things fall into place!!” He gazes up at his brother. “Things fall into place for you, Scott?”
Scott raises his hand. He’s chuckling; his cheeks still flushed; no doubt from the amount of champagne he has consumed. “A gentleman doesn’t discuss …
“…his fuckin’ conquests,” Johnny finishes. He looks up at me, and nudges me with his elbow. “Ain’t that right, Pa? Unless, o’ course, you’d like to discuss…”
I cut him off. “Oh, yes, my son. I have a great deal I intend to discuss with you.”
Johnny’s beginning to look a little green again, and he’s rubbing his belly. I don’t know if it’s because of what I’ve just said, or that the -- I count the shot glasses lined up on the bar -- ten shots of tequila have finally caught up with him.
“Gonna be sick,” he croaks.
He is. All over the front of my shirt.
After cleaning up, collecting my belongings from the hotel, and saying my reluctant goodbyes to Jess Simmons and Ethan Farley; I was quite happy to accept Clay Porter’s offer of not only his hack, but the private railroad coach. I am not happy, however, that my vacation away from the ranch as ended two days earlier than I anticipated.
Scott is sprawled out in a chair, his long legs crossed at the ankle; snoring a bit as he sleeps the sleep of the dead drunk. I accepted his apology, if not his explanation; and he, in turn, acknowledged my firm scolding regarding the newly established rules for being a big brother. It has definitely been decided he will confine his instructions to his younger brother to words rather than deeds; at least where women are concerned.
Johnny is wide awake. His attempt to blame his brother for his disobedience -- and his failure to use the protection Scott provided -- has failed, and he has a long list of additional chores as a reminder. He’s toying with the conchos on his right pant leg, his head lowered slightly; the pout forming as he starts to speak. “A man has needs, ya know.”
It’s probably the tenth time Johnny has imparted that bit of wisdom since we left the bordello. I gaze at him over the top of the book I confiscated from Scott. “Yes, John. And, if my memory serves me, a six month old male pup seems to think the same. That doesn’t mean, however, he’s equipped to lead the pack.”
He leans back in his chair, watching me as I read. His eyes narrow as he considers the analogy, and it’s clear from his face he understands exactly what I’m implying and he is not happy. I can see the argument building.
“Murdoch,” he begins.
“The matter is not open for discussion, John. I suggest you get some sleep.” Beyond the windows, daylight is beginning its pink crawl across the horizon. Both of my sons have a long day ahead of them once we get home.
He squirms a bit in his chair. “Ain’t tired,” he grouses.
“You will be,” I shoot back. I turn the page and begin reading again.
“Ain’t fair,” he snorts.
Clearly, the boy needs something to think about. I close the book. A man does have needs, and right now, I need to sleep. That’s not going to happen if I don’t think of something to give the boy a reason to think.
Johnny does some of his best thinking when he’s asleep.
“Look, Old Man…”
I know what’s coming next if I don’t put a stop to it. Another diatribe about how long he’s taken care of himself, how much he knows, how much he thinks he knows. Leaning forward slightly, I wiggle a single finger at him; intent on giving him something to ponder while I sleep.
Curious, he leans closer, his head canted.
I smile, and whisper into his ear. “Did you tell your brother about the mirror above her bed, John,” I ask, “or do you think he already knows?”